National security police in Hong Kong who arrested five former trustees of a now-defunct relief fund for detained protesters say they have uncovered “misconduct” by some solicitors and barristers during the course of their probe.

Among those arrested was a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal and a former legislator already serving a separate prison sentence. The police action attracted widespread overseas criticism, which Beijing has rejected.

Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui Po-keung and Denise Ho. Photos: HKFP.

In a statement on Thursday, police said they discovered the misconduct during their investigation into the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund. The statement stopped short of describing the type of misconduct.

“During police’s criminal investigation, we at the same time discovered that some solicitors and barristers, while providing legal services, allegedly committed misconduct. [Police] have launched complaints to the Law Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Bar Association regarding the matter.”

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the Bar Association in an email confirmed “an investigation of the relevant matter is in progress.”  

“We are not in a position to respond or comment on the updates or details in the investigation before it is concluded,” the statement said.

The Law Society of Hong Kong meanwhile said its council will look into the conduct of its members in accordance with established procedures if necessary, adding that all conduct investigations would be kept confidential. “The Law Society will not comment specifically on individual cases, especially those under investigation by the police or subject to judicial proceedings,” a statement by the society’s chair Chan Chak-ming read.

Cyd Ho arrest

Thursday’s government statement also confirmed the arrest of the five trustees on suspicion of violating the national security law. They are accused of conspiring to collude with foreign forces by asking overseas countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong. Collusion is an offence under the security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.

Cyd Ho. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The latest arrest was that of former lawmaker Cyd Ho, who is currently in prison for a separate protest-related offence, according to local media. The other four were barrister Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung and Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen.

All except for Cyd Ho were released on bail. They must surrender all their travel documents and report back to police in August.

Irrelevant to religious background

The statement did not name the five but said the arrests were made in accordance with the law, based on evidence and irrelevant to the occupation or religious background of the arrestees.

The Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong both expressed concerns over Zen’s arrest.

Hong Kong Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Photo: Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.

“The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong is extremely concerned about the condition and safety of Cardinal Joseph Zen and we are offering our special prayers for him. We have always upheld the rule of law. We trust that in the future we will continue enjoying religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law,” the diocese said in a statement.

It also urged the police and judicial authorities to handle Zen’s case “in accordance with justice.”

Human rights groups and foreign governments have also denounced the arrests.

“The targeting of these four activists, among them a 90-year-old cardinal, for enabling legal and humanitarian support for protesters lays bare the Hong Kong government’s callous disregard for the basic rights of its citizens,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Erwin van der Borght said on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch called the arrests “a shocking new low.”

‘Smearing’ by the West

China’s Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong hit back at what it called the “smearing” by Western organisations and politicians of the police action.

Photo: The Commissioner’s Office of China’s Foreign Ministry in the Hong Kong SAR

“A spokesperson at China’s Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong expresses strong disapproval and opposition, emphasising that ‘rights and freedoms’ are not a ‘shield’ for illegal activities aimed to stir up chaos in Hong Kong. [The ministry] urges foreign forces that are intervening to immediately stop their clumsy political show filled with ideological biases,” a statement on Thursday read.

Almond Li

Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.